Water and Conflict in Iran

by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

The most important sentence in the Persian language is arguably “Baba ab dad.” The sentence means “father gave water.” It is the first sentence taught to Iranian children when they are learning to read and write. Beyond its phonetic simplicity, it establishes the sense of obligation to one’s parents that is so indicative of an Iranian childhood. It also establishes an expectation that elders will care for young and that the powerful will care for the powerless. In a sense, “father gave water” is the most succinct articulation of the promise of the social contract in Iran.

Today, the Iranian fatherland is struggling to give its people water.

In the assessment of experts, Iran is “water bankrupt,” a terminology that echoes the country’s economic woes. In a 2016 paper, Kaveh Madani, Amir AghaKouchak, and Ali Mirchi determine that Iran’s water crisis is mostly man-made, though exacerbated by climate change. Drivers of the water crisis are myriad and include population growth, urbanization, poor infrastructure, inefficient agriculture, a lack of governance, and wasteful behaviors. In light of these challenges, the authors warn, “No single solution will ‘fix’ Iran’s water problems… To solve these issues, it is necessary to adopt a portfolio approach that involves implementing multiple concurrent strategies.”

Notably, Madani is now deputy head of Iran’s Department of Environment, and his energetic leadership on the issue is indicative of the increasing cooperation among governmental, commercial, and civil society groups to try and mitigate the crisis. Scenes of Iranian communities praying for rain and the possible connection between water insecurity and the recent protests speak to the urgency of the task at hand. As the crisis reaches a tipping point, the response may be becoming more organized. The authors suggest that

extreme events leading to increased pressure and public awareness can reduce the political cost of radical regulatory changes. Thus, while extreme events and crises are destructive and costly in the short term, they can have long-term benefits if the system under management does not collapse before reforms are applied.

The notion that extreme events related to the water crisis might precipitate a collapse of the “system” has fueled the imaginations of a particular crowd. Thomas Friedman’s recent column, which bizarrely opens a discussion of Iran’s water crisis by imagining Donald Trump tweeting about the issue, is a case in point. The piece is far less detailed than his May 2013 examination of the role that droughts may have played in Syria’s civil war. Whereas Friedman was able to report on the ground in Syria, for his piece on Iran he relies extensively on quoting from various newspaper reports on the crisis in order to make a rather facile point.

Friedman believes that the water crisis is emblematic of a wider set of failings in Iran’s social contract. This is self-evident. But what is less evident is his motivation for highlight the fact. Friedman is not the first commentator with a negative view of the Iranian government to highlight the water crisis. To this point, his principal source in the story is Nik Kowsar, an political activist who runs a website devoted to Iran’s water crisis and who is opposed to the Islamic Republic.

Water and Regime Change

Over the last year, the water crisis has been a touchpoint in commentary and social media for figures from the Foundation for Defense of Democracy (FDD), United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), and Reza Pahlavi, the son of Iran’s last shah.

In their references to and writings about the water crisis, these groups ignore the constructive efforts of government officials, business leaders, and members of civil society to find solutions to the crisis. To be clear, these are the efforts of a determined minority, not yet the establishment at large. But by failing to make any useful suggestions about how international peers can help Iranians in their urgent efforts, advocates are dismissing the idea of improvement out of hand.

These omissions lay bare the use of the water crisis as further evidence for the case of regime change. As Reza Pahlavi declared in a 2017 Huffington Post piece:

Because of the inhumane policies of the Islamic Republic’s rulers, millions of well-educated Iranian expatriates are unable to go back and help save their beloved country from disaster… This failed and corrupt political regime ruling Iran is destroying our homeland. We must put an end to this in order to save Iran for future generations.

Pahlavi’s complete erasure of domestic efforts to stem the water crisis, and the insulting suggestion that only “well-educated Iranian expatriates” can help prevent disaster, points to the cynicism at the heart of these pleas for help. If the Iranian government were to make a drastic change in its policies and make headway in improving water security, it is highly unlikely that figures such as Pahlavi would find any relief in the news. According to this dubious formulation, a solution to the water crisis requires a change in Iran’s political system.

Yet the mismanagement of natural resources is a failure of governance not unique to the Islamic Republic. Even in the United States, water shortages threaten the southwestern states and local governments can fail to provide safe drinking water even where it is plentiful, such as in Flint, Michigan. There is something plainly disingenuous about questioning the legitimacy of a government struggling with resource mismanagement before questioning whether any practical steps can be taken to mitigate the problem given the existing socio-political circumstances. After all, the Iranian people surely consider the total reliability of their water supply as more important than the marginal reliability of their government. In the short term, the former should be improved before the later. 

International Response

Thankfully, the international community has proven willing to seek solutions within the current political climate. The United Nations Development Programme has done extensive work to promote sustainable agriculture that uses less water and to recuperate Lake Urmia, with financial support from Japan. In the context of post-sanctions trade and investment, the governments of Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Austria have identified water management as a key area for cooperation. In December 2016, the European Union and Iran adopted a framework for technical cooperation on the environment.

But the same groups that on one hand have sought to highlight Iran’s water crisis, have on the other taken steps to prevent such international cooperation from reaching Iran. For example, UANI has sought to name and shame France’s Veolia for its intention to enter the Iranian market. Veolia is one of the world’s leading water-management companies, with a suite of technologies that could drastically improve the efficiency of Iran’s municipal water infrastructure. In general, the opposition of these groups to Iran’s reintegration into the global economy, and their targeting of companies and organizations that pursue work in Iran, has slowed the provision of both critical technologies and sorely needed investment to support better water management. As outlined in a recent panel discussion at the Atlantic Council, even basic scientific exchanges, which have proven a resilient channel of dialogue between the United States and Iran, have had to be curtailed, including academic initiatives around water management.

The United States has long sought to ensure that its program of sanctions does not “prohibit the delivery of humanitarian assistance and exports of humanitarian goods to Iran.” The scope of humanitarian assistance has largely been limited to foodstuffs, medicine, and communications technologies (with the intention of encouraging democratic freedoms). However, given the severity of the water crisis in Iran and its clear human impact, there exists strong grounds for technologies related to water management and the attendant training and technical assistance to be covered under humanitarian general license. Such a move would help underscore the commitment of the US government to the wellbeing of the Iranian people, and it would help facilitate the flow of assistance from third-party countries, especially in Europe.

During the recent protests in Iran, Pahlavi went to Capitol Hill to lobby for such an expansion in the Treasury Department’s licensing policy around communications technologies. He did so because he wished to give Iranians the tools he thought they would use to overthrow their government. But perhaps his energy, and that of his ilk, would be better spent helping to ensure that fathers in Iran have water to give their children, even if that water is to flow from lakes and rivers in a country called the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Photo: drought in Khuzestan province, Iran.

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

Esfandyar has spent the last 5 years working on projects related to "business diplomacy" between the West and Iran. He is the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum, the leading annual gathering for business, government and civil society leaders committed to Iran's economic development, and the executive editor Bourse & Bazaar, a digital business publication with a focus on Iran. He is a graduate of Columbia University.



  1. Iranians consume 110% more water than what’s available per year. Naturally this is not a viable situation however consumption has increased with human development rates.

    The idea that there’s a “wider set of failings in Iran’s social contract” ignores the fact that from 1980 to 2013 Iran had the second-fastest rate improving its Human Development Index (67% for Iran compared to 72% for China, lower for S Korea, Brazil, Turkey etc.) and that the average Iranian gained more than 22 years in life expectancy in that time period. Iran became a “Highly Developed” nation and 10 years ago surpassed Turkey’s standard of living, despite sanctions, threats of wars, and while taking care of the world’s largest refugee population of 4.5 million Afghans.

    Global Warming is not Iran’s fault nor is dust pollution that comes from dried marshes in Iraq thanks to the Iraq war.

  2. Time for Iran to contact Israel for water / agriculture technology.

  3. I thank the author and agree wholeheartedly with his outlook. While it’s true that the Iranian government hasn’t done nearly enough to raise public awareness and legislate urgent water conservation, foreign meddling contributes to this official neglect. Faced with terrorism, sanctions and American-Saudi-Israeli hostility, Tehran is understandably consumed by national defense preparedness, including sponsorship of allies in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, to the detriment of other vital priorities like water. In this super tense geopolitical climate, the Iranian authorities undoubtedly fear that limiting the nation’s wasteful water use habits can provoke an “anti-austerity” movement susceptible to foreign warmonger manipulation.

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